Spending a year in Berlin means that my kids are treated to all sorts of new experiences. We live in an apartment, not a house. We don’t have a car, nor do we need one. The playgrounds have zip lines, sand pulleys, and slides so tall that our seven- and eight-year-olds sometimes decide to back down the ladder. The toys are mostly the same except that the Star Wars trading cards are all in German.
But you can’t spend much time in Berlin before the issue comes up: Berlin has a past. There are small reminders everywhere, from remnants of the Berlin Wall to small golden cobblestones inscribed with names and dates, to the church in the middle of the city with a broken spire. There is a dramatic and heartrending monument that, to my children, looks like a vast skateboard park. There are freight train tracks overgrown with maple trees. All these things are here, and it became clear after a few months that we were going to have to talk about them.
The Berlin Wall seemed like a good place to start. We’ve been to see the sections of it that remain and much of its former path is marked by special paving stones. I told the kids that Berlin used to be two cities—West Berlin and East Berlin—and that for some of the time it was divided there was a wall between the two so people couldn’t cross.
“So people from the West couldn’t go to the East and people from the East couldn’t go to the West?”
“Well, no. People from the West were usually allowed to cross but it was harder for people from the East to get permission to leave.”
“Because a lot of people were leaving the East and not coming back so the government wanted to stop people from leaving.”
“But why were people leaving the East and not coming back?”
I caught on pretty soon that this was a much bigger conversation than I was prepared to have. There are no short and simple answers to questions about the Cold War. This is clear enough from the different perspectives that my partner and I bring to this history. When I was growing up in Canada, I thought we were on the side of the good guys. We had mobility, democracy and freedom while the other side had surveillance, dictatorships and oppression. In my politically left-leaning family I was taught that society should take care of its more vulnerable members, but I never heard anyone really question the capitalist system. I saw enough American movies and TV shows to know that “communist” was a bad word. My partner grew up in non-aligned Sri Lanka where he read Marx and where many of his friends won scholarships to study in the Soviet Union. He grew up where the recent history of colonialism made the West’s talk of freedom and democracy ring hollow. Socialism was a live political force that couldn’t be reduced to the images of Soviet and East German oppression that I was provided.
So now, nearly 25 years after it was opened, we stand at the Berlin Wall with the realization that explaining a divided Berlin to our children is going to be a lot more complicated than telling them it used to separate the good guys from the bad guys. The story is just too vast. From the Nazis coming to power to the Second World War to the Holocaust to the division of Berlin and the Cold War—there are countless histories to be explored and patterns to be understood, analyzed, compared and explained. We don’t understand it all ourselves and we can’t relay it all to our children during our one year in Berlin, nor could they absorb it if we did. So we stick with simply answering their questions. Not hiding anything, not glossing over it, but not offering the whole mountain of information either.
Bits of history will pop up unexpectedly. Biking past a magnificently striking monument to fallen Soviet soldiers, one of the kids said:
“So Russia attacked Berlin and took it over, right?”
No, not exactly. We talked about how Russia was part of the Soviet Union at the time. And the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and the USA all worked together to stop Nazi Germany from taking over other countries. But near the end of the war it was the Soviet army that came into Berlin and defeated the Nazis.
“And then they built a wall.”
“Well, then Berlin was divided up by all the countries that had won the war. And part of it became West Berlin and part of it became East Berlin. They built the wall later.”
“So Russia was good because they beat the Nazis but then they were bad because they built a wall and wouldn’t let people out. Right?”
Of course it isn’t that simple. There is a lot more to discuss. All we can do now is answer their questions and leave a lot of doors open to explore later. Our children are only seven and eight. They will leave Berlin with some sense that this city’s past is long and complicated. Conflict is never black and white, nor is it strictly good and bad. But we hope that when they are sitting in their history or economics classes years from now they will think critically about what they hear. We hope they will remember that they have looked at Berlin from more than one side.